Writing in Place

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the relaunch of her monthly column about the creative practice.

I took the day off yesterday. Instead of work, I had a long drive through the cloud-bound autumn forests draped around the feet of Mount Saint Helens. The forecast called for partial sun, mountain views. I drove in rain that was quiet and soft and curled up close, like a cat. 

At the shores of a reservoir, at official viewpoints utterly wiped by fog, at a nameless trail, I got out to walk. Within minutes of the nameless trailhead, alderfall had broken and partially blocked a wooden footbridge. I crawled beneath it, crouched in half and pivoting sideways— toes, then heels—my back brushing life and death. On the other side, half an hour of maple-carpet trail time, so silent I could hear my weird brain-creaks, like the rigging of a tall ship, and the hushed irregular mutterings of my digestion. 

I have eaten and spoken and slept and watched a film, but I am still inside that forest. I’m a human-shaped spell. Or a human connected by blood and air to the other-than-human. Or a human lost, and reclaimed by the wood. 

This is the space from which I write my poetry. Like most places I routinely traveled in the course of my pre-covid life, I hadn’t been there in many longing months. 


Before covid, I could have told you I write in place. I can revise a piece anywhere, but new poems grow from the ground I’m resting on, the trees I walk among, and the creeks I wander. 

Last fall I spent a week in rural Tennessee, intending to finish a manuscript that was composed entirely in the place I call “the fields,” near my home in western Oregon. I did that, but I kept getting interrupted by the much more urgent work of shaping sentences to the gentle hills and deciduous woods around me. Poetry and walking are how I talk to a place, and I like to think my poems are also, partially, a translation of what the place speaks in return. 

This year I’ve been nowhere. Well, I’ve been home. High-risk family, work-from-home, cancelled all our plans: you know the story. And I know that I have been a fortunate narrator. Not least because my home—rented before the pandemic, and moved into in the very teeth of the first days of lockdown—is quiet and beautiful. And private, for all it’s in city limits, next to a park. Its neighborhood, and the network of them that spread from here across my city’s wooded hills, is pleasant to walk. So that’s most of my needs covered. Except travel. Since when is travel something a person can need?

This year, I’ve written plenty of poems. As far as I know, it’s impossible for me not to. I compose if I’m conscious, the way I bleed if you cut me. But until this homebound year, I hadn’t fully understood a conflict at the center of my life, which is this: I like my home landscape just fine. And I’ve never learned to love it. We hang out all the time. And we don’t connect. 

If I want to connect, to write in place where I connect, I need to travel. In service of that connection, I tend to re-travel, to places where I have experienced communion. I need communion.

So when I write poems from my home—low inland valleys and cottonwooded rivers, a littleish metro increasingly packed tight in its urban growth boundary—they tend to be poems I like, and I’m not in love with. They come from a state of being I like too, and am not in love with. They come from practicality and settledness, from work and repetition. Never from ecstasy or untranslatable depth, never communion. 

Until this year, it seemed reasonable to stay with a place that keeps me (or I keep it?) at arm’s length. Within a few hours and a tank or three of gas, or an airplane ticket, I could be somewhere that gets me. And I made those journeys, often. I was high when I traveled and low when I got home. Now I’m sort of…tranquilized. Not tranquil; it feels like something done to me, not organic. I’m wondering if I need to break up with my landscape.

Poetry is an interesting road in to this question. With a smaller and less dazzling pool of inspiration, I’m forced to new thoughts. Pretty often, unwelcome ones. 

A particular landscape shapes (scapes!) thought and expression the way a specific language does. The thinking I can do in this landscape where I live creates work that is less satisfying to me. Why is that? What am I learning from it? And…is this ever going to be okay?

One of my specific frustrations has to do with my limited walks. I wander the same neighborhoods, with their seams and pass-throughs, their curving streets and mountain views and occasional anxious dogs. And I get bored with this place, beautiful as it objectively is. It feels like a failure to admit this. I believe in re-walking, for the same reasons I believe in re-travel. Craig Mod wrote, in one of his wonderful newsletters, that “re-walking is as important as re-reading,” and I got that little electric zip! of recognition. I re-walk because it takes time—days or seasons or years—to get to know a place, to let it work on you. I don’t dislike what this one has worked in me. I just don’t desire it. 

To learn and grow is maybe the best we can ask from non-optimal circumstance. Though it’s possible, too, to realize a circumstance is better than you thought. This is a shape of my hope. But I’m skeptical. I miss my places as much as I miss my human family. I miss my ecstatic work maybe more. 

Maybe some of what I’m learning is how to be faithful. 

Is it fidelity if you’re physically stuck? I think so. Faithfulness is a habit of discipline, perhaps, rather than a wild inspiration. And a habit of mind, embodied through physical practice. I am faithful to this place because I still go out to meet it, every day, with my heart as open as I can make it. I am faithful to my creative life, because here I am, writing in this place. 

The question of whether this is “okay” might be answered by saying that none of us are okay right now. Even when I’m having a good week, feeling healthy, finding tiny joys all over, the most honest way I can ever answer that bugaboo “how are you?” is a rueful smile and my husband’s phrase: “apocalypse-okay!” 

This might pass. For better or worse, humans are great at adjusting. 

It might not pass. Our world’s immediate future is a mixed bag that includes some serious horrors. These lead in to the smaller, more personal horrors: restricted travel, et cetera. To all of this, difficulty, depression, and grin-and-bear-it catchphrases are a reasonable response. 

So the real question, as usual, is how to balance. Maybe a personal silver lining of this year is getting a look at this need, getting clarity on what I think I require to write, and why. 

I can’t help longing for this spellbound forest-feeling to remain, because who knows when I can leave my city next? Though settledness is good too, I sometimes think. Calmer, anyway. Rooted, even if it’s not the soil I think I grow best in. A phrase from Teilhard de Chardin, that I heard probably ten times before its seed got through my tarmacked brain, is suddenly resonant:

“The world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.”

The creative life—life, an inherently creative state—is capricious and random and unfair, as well as joyful and rewarding. “Stuck” in a place I both brush aside and automatically claim as home, I can learn to live—to walk and to write and to talk—with my unwanted new clarity. 

I’ll certainly write poems within it, unecstatically. Faithfully. They’ll companion me and they’ll question me and they’ll teach me, like they always do.

Photo credit: Tara K. Shepersky

 
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